This blog is composed of images and writings related to the life and work of Faith Ringgold, her mother Mme. Willi Posey, and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace. There are pages with links to blogs composed of the materials arranged by decades. The blog, itself, will ultimately be composed of materials related to the life of the family in the 90s and the 21st century.
It was Revolution time in New York, in Harlem, at New Lincoln and everywhere else yet I would go from studying dance at Arthur Mitchell's new school of ballet in Harlem to studying acting at the National Black Theatre on 125th Street. Martin Luther King must have already been killed by this time because as I understand it, Arthur Mitchell had been motivated by King's death to start his Dance Theatre of Harlem. It had always been his dream to start a black ballet company. King's death was the wake-up call he needed not to put it off any longer, I discovered somewhat later when I had a chance to interview him.
The classes were held in the former or still present Harlem School of the Arts in the buildings of the little church still standing on the corner of 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. This institution was and is still called the Harlem School of Arts. At first, Mitchell used this space and he had two classes, one for all the children who were beginners and one for the more advanced group which either had previous training or talent and physical grace to burn. By obvious background in ballet, I was placed in the beginner class. The first day was one of the most pleasant days I had ever experienced in my aspirations to study dance.
The teacher whose name I can't recall (maybe it was Walter, very good looking) was a young black male who was either already an important dancer himself or on the verge of being one. He immediately separated me from the others and used me to demonstrate correct positioning of the body in the barre exercises, in particular simple exercises including tendu and demi and full plies in first, second and fifth position, releves, ronde de jambe tendu and developee. I had a great pointe at the time, and a good background in basic ballet, which I had worked on very diligently on my own. I even took ballet classes during our summers in Provincetown. Dancing ran in the family and nice feet with good arches were a family trait so my ability to point my toes and to perform the basic leg movements made me stand out as more competent than a rank amateur.
Also, I was 16 so that's pretty old to be a beginner in ballet. The rest of the beginner class was composed largely of children, under 13 I would guess. Not only was I 16, although I was only 5'2" at the time, I prided myself on appearing sophisticated and as adult as I could muster. I now know in retrospect that I probably could have succeeded in transforming myself into a passably competent ballet dancer because of my physical abilities. I was strong and graceful in the athletic sense although I was shy and withdrawn but the shyness would not have necessarily been a hindrance in the corp if I had been willing to do as I was told and follow the group. But there was at the time a tremendous glass ceiling facing the black female dancer in ballet and ballet was actually the only form in which I felt entirely comfortable.
You could say that I loved ballet and longed, in the deepest sense, to be a ballet dancer. New York had a lot of ballet dancers and it was $2 to sit in the cheap seats at the ballet. Dance classes were also very cheap, maybe two to four dollars as well. But I lacked both the discipline and the determination to really make good on Mitchell's opportunity. You might say we were on a collision course with me heading someplace else entirely. I was there more for the exercise, the physical training, the beauty of the music and the other dancers, and had accidentally stumbled into an express train when all I really wanted was to see the sights. The early days of Arthur Mitchell's school was a terribly exciting, inspiring and uplifting environment.
Through the years of my adolescence I had been taking advantage of the array of dance classes available in New York. These had included classes at the Joffrey School, with Valerie Bettis and with John Wideman in what would now be considered NoHo. Besides taking classes fairly frequently at the Harlem School of the Arts before Mitchell's arrival, I also took dance classes at Leroi Jones Black Arts School in the summer of 1965 along with my sister and my Mom who took printmaking with Ed Spriggs. It was at Jones' school that I first took African Dance I believe when I was 13, which was a real revelation. In those days all dance classes were taught with the most magnificent live music. With my love for music, the live music alone would have been enough to keep me coming for more.
I found young (adolescent) ballet dancers and their mothers the most fascinating creatures in all the world of Manhattan. I found the dramas unfolding in the classes, the dressing rooms, the hallways and performances absolutely riveting.
At the conclusion of that first day in the beginner class, Walter took me to the more advanced class, introduced me to the teacher Arthur Shook, Mitchell's wise ballet master. He told me that from now on I should attend the more advanced class, which was the end of my happiness. In the advanced class there were a full range of people, including people who were obviously already professional dancers, people who had come in from Europe just for this opportunity because a door that had been closed was getting ready to creak open (although it took at least another 30 years for the deed to be well and truly done, I think black ballet dancers have finally arrived and are here to stay).
Morever, Shook was not the type to give false praise, or any kind of praise at all. He spotted me for a slacker I think from when we first saw one another. As I know all too well these days that the desire to avoid hard work is the first thing a teacher is inclined to notice about a young person. Meanwhile, Shook was into slow arduous painstaking technique, lots of sweat and fore bearance. Work was his first, middle and last name.
I don't know whether I imagined them but it seems to me I recall, as well, a number of parenthetical lectures about the shortcomings of the training of American ballet dancers, the lack of discipline, the mindless and shapeless fluttering of the arms. Mitchell was a product of Balanchine's training which he brought from Russia and France and Shook, who I think may have been a European of some variety and was much older than Mitchell, obviously came from hell. Or at least I felt like he did often enough. If Shook's class was slow and painstaking then Mitchell's class was like being asked to fly without benefit of elevation. Mitchell raced through the barre and moved on quickly to lightening combinations, leaps and all sorts of crazy stuff that you had to pick up and do faster than you could think about it or be left in the back of the room staring. And it's not like he would just ignore the people who were lagging. He would taunts you and make funny cracks about you to his own considerable amusement. He had a wonderful bright charismatic personality. He was one of the most handsome men I had ever seen and he frequently performed in class for benefit. He held nothing back. What strikes me now is how available he was to us, how much time he took.
The schedule was two classes every afternoon and evening after school during the week and all day Saturday. It was an absolutely grueling routine. I was always hungry, as I recall, always sleepy. It was clear to me from almost the start that I wasn't going to last. The back of the room was not a viable place to remain in the forthcoming company class. It was no place to relax. And shyness was not anything Mitchell seemed to respect. In my case, I was taunted and chastised for every move I made or didn't make. I think I was vaguely aware that I was receiving all this attention because they were both interested in my possibilities, but in my heart of hearts I think I always knew that it could never work out.
I know at some point I decided to abandon the classes there, in the middle of Karl Shook's class one day. It may have been a pointe class, which I had looked forward to all my life but which I hated in actual fact, and he had just demanded that we do something I knew I could and would never do. So I just grabbed my stuff and walked out.
There are some other things related to this. First, I was attending a real and seriously challenging school, a school in which the aspiration to be a dancer was regarded with thinly veiled contempt. Also, my mind was very much on the revolution in the streets, the transformation and revelation of my black identity, and I was greatly disappointed by the generally low intellectual level of the conversation and aspirations of the other future dancers. The only people who really seemed to like me were the young men in the classes who were also the only ones who encouraged me and told me how beautiful I was because Mitchell and Shook were always complaining that I was too fat. The Anorexic thing was really in in the dance world at that time. It only made it worse that I had never heard the word anorexic or bulimic yet.
The other thing that must have happened somehow in coordination with my straying away from Mitchell's school was that at some point I decided to apply at Julliard as a dance major. Modern dance. I dared not speak the holy name of ballet. Encouraged by the dancer I had worked with at Music and Art High School during the summer, I had applied and was scheduled for the day of interviews and the audition. My plan was to use the routine that I had performed that summer at Music and Art at the final performance but once I left Mitchell, I didn't do much preparation or rehearsal I suspect. As I recall, the way they did the interview process was that you were called in for the day with a number of other girls, maybe three or four and the group of you toured the facilities, were acquainted with all the teachers and the way that Juilliard did everything. Everybody was encouraging and sweet. It was like being in heaven.
The final event of the day was the audition, which I was dreading because I knew I was not prepared for it. I don't know which order I performed in but I remember that there was a panel of reviewers which included Jerome Robbins and Agnes DeMille. The room was chockablock with famous dancers whom I had been reading about in Dance Magazine. Rarely can I recall ever having been so afraid in my life. I wanted to run away again but I was determined I was not going to run the way I had run from Shook's class. Being a coward did not feel right.
I don't know where my mother was but I don't recall anybody else's parents being there either. We were treated like adults, it seemed to me. So I performed my dance. It seemed to me that I had done so so poorly, that I was trembling and that I was a fake, somebody who had gotten into their midst on false pretenses. I was embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed, but then going to Julliard was really the only college I had ever dreamed of attending. This was enough to convince me that I never should or could be a dancer.
But I will always remember that Jerome Robbins encouraged me to try again, to continue training. At the time, I was so completely convinced that he didn't mean it, that he had said it out of pity and contempt. Of course being black in a room in which there were no other black people along with the implied assumption that serious modern or ballet was not our world didn't help the situation either. But I was only 16 and probably a good deal better and full of potential than I imagined. I didn't know then that there is almost nothing you can't do at 16 but it took moxie to go through with the audition given the odds of not being successful. The reviewers would have to be full out racists not to have admired me a little.
Not too many years after that, I saw a movie with my mother called FAME, which was about a performing arts high school. I watched the interviewing and auditioning process eagerly, gratified to see that not having a ghost of a chance or not having adequately prepared for an audition was not the most far out thing in an environment like that. One has to let these things go eventually. Also, I had the great pleasure of getting to visit my niece Faith during her time as a student at Bryn Mawr, a small private women's college where the Dance Department is extensive and well run. I attended a dance concert put on by their dance department. It was a Department in which I would imagine few of the students were expecting to have careers as dancer. But Bryn Mawr, like a lot of private colleges, had the view that instruction in dance could help to build character, taste, vision, good health, all the fine qualities that make you a wonderful human being.
Faith performed magnificently in an African dance troupe that was part of the classes offered at the college. We have the performance on dvd somewhere. Even more gratifying to me was to see the warmth and intimacy between Faith, the rest of the girls and the Dance Department at Bryn Mawr College. Once again I silently thanked the saints for leading Faith to Bryn Mawr and for making it possible for her to procure such a generous scholarship there.
More than 40 years ago. On a bench just outside of Central Park.
This was my yearbook picture, one grabbed on the fly by a patient student photographer.
The summer before in 1967 Barbara and I had gone to Europe with MJ for two whole months while Mom Faith concentrated on producing her great murals DIE, THE FLAG IS BLEEDING and THE UNITED STATES POSTAGE STAMP TO COMMEMORATE BLACK POWER. During the day she painted at the Spectrum gallery on 57th Street with her friend Jeannine Petite, and in the evenings she avoided her own apartment where Dad was and went instead to MJ's smaller, less demanding apartment. Dad was effectively abandoned for the summer and eventually wondered away to establish his new apartment in 409. Faith tells me and tells everyone that this was the first time ever in her adult life that she had ever been entirely on her own, entirely alone and free to do whatever she wished without having to consider the wants and needs of her family. She was 37 years old and it had been a very long wait.
So Barbara and I both spent the summer of 1968 in an arts program in Harlem at Music and Art, which was then located on the City College of New York campus. Given my superior training and maturity, I was soon drafted by the teacher as her demonstration assistant. Mom was chasing the Art World after the opening of her first one-woman show at the Spectrum Gallery in the fall of 1967, to which we invited all our friends from New Lincoln. We drank champagne and danced as the adults made a circle around us.
- Faith Ringgold (42)
- Photo Essay (35)
- Willi Posey (33)
- Michele Wallace (30)
- Photo Collection (23)
- Change Quilt (14)
- Art by Faith Ringgold (11)
- Chronologies and Documents (11)
- Critical Essay (10)
- Barbara Knight (9)
- the 50s (9)
- Burdette Ringgold (8)
- Faith Wallace-Gadsden (7)
- Florida (7)
- the 70s (7)
- B.B. Posey (6)
- Barbara Wallace (6)
- the 80s (6)
- the 40s (5)
- the 60s (5)
- Anne Porter (4)
- Earl Wallace (4)
- Fashion (4)
- Ida Matilda Posey (4)
- New Lincoln School (4)
- Sonny Rollins (4)
- Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman (3)
- Camp Craigmeade (3)
- Susan Shannon (3)
- The French Collection (3)
- Theodora Grant (3)
- 19th century (2)
- Andrew Jones (2)
- Betsy Bingham (2)
- Declaration of Independence (2)
- Helen Meade (2)
- Invisibility Blues (2)
- Judson 3 (2)
- Theodora Wallace-Orr (2)
- Thomas Morrison (2)
- Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima (2)
- the 30s (2)
- Anyone Can Fly Foundation (1)
- Black Visual Culture (1)
- Cardoza Posey (1)
- Dark Designs and Visual Culture (1)
- For The Women's House (1)
- Gene Nesmith (1)
- Ida Mae Bingham (1)
- Interviews (1)
- Inventories (1)
- Jacksonville (1)
- Judith Wilson (1)
- Kate Raphael (1)
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1)
- Lisa Yee (1)
- Memoirs (1)
- Michael Jackson (1)
- Mojo Okediji (1)
- P.S. 186 (1)
- Pablo Picasso (1)
- The Mona Lisa Interview (1)
- University of African Art (1)
- Yvonne Mullings (1)
- ► 2010 (13)
- ► August (14)
- ▼ July (18)
- ► May (11)
- ► July (23)
My Publications--Michele Wallace
- Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, New Edition, Verso Books 1990
- Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, The Dial Press 1979
- Black Popular Culture, New Press 1991
- Dark Designs and Visual Culture, Duke UP 2004
- Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory and Back Again, Verso Books 2008
- Invisibility Blues: From Pop To Theory, Verso Books 1999
My Publications--Selected Articles
- "The French Collection: Momma Jones, Mommy Faye and Me," Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold French Collection and Other Story Quilts. University of California 1995.
- Faith Ringold and The Anyone Can Fly Foundation in Barbara Hoffman, ed., A Visual Artist's Guide to Estate Planning, 2008 Update
- Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, 2001 African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era Essay by Michele Wallace on "Within Our Gates and Oscar Micheaux"
- The Mona Lisa Interview with Faith Ringgold by Michele Wallace
- The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center presents Museums of Tomorrow: An Internet Conference, 10-05-2003
- The Georgia O'Keefe Museum Research Center presents The Modern/Postmodern Dialectic: An Online Symposium, American Art and Culture, 1965-2000
- Passing, Lynching and Jim Crow: A Genealogy of Race and Gender in U.S. Visual Culture, 1895-1929, Dissertation in Cinema Studies, New York University, UMI, May 1999